Following Game 7 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, the first round of the post-season will officially be over and Thursday night will see the puck drop on Round 2. And with the NHL’s version of the Sweet 16 trimmed down to an Elite Eight, the matchups become even more gripping.
Here are five head-to-head battles to watch in Round 2:
SIDNEY CROSBY vs. ALEX OVECHKIN
This isn’t some first-time-ever battle that’s going to pit one superstar against another. Truth be told, we’ve seen this story, what, four different times throughout Crosby and Ovechkin’s respective careers? But think about it not like a matchup we’ve seen before, but as two great rivals going blow-for-blow with one another on the big stage. This is Ali-Frazier.
The expectation, of course, is that Crosby is going to win the battle. And that’s the expectation because, quite frankly, Crosby’s Penguins have made the Capitals look foolish one way or another in each of the four times the two teams have squared off in the post-season. Statistically, though, it might surprise some to know that Ovechkin has been the better performer in the post-season tete-a-tetes between the two greatest players of the modern era. The Capitals captain has 12 goals and 26 points in 20 games against the Penguins in the post-season, whereas Crosby, has 10 goals and 22 points across 19 games — he missed Game 4 during the 2017 series. It’s always a treat when the two square off, though, and this time around will be no different.
PEKKA RINNE vs. CONNOR HELLEBUYCK
In all likelihood, when the NHL Awards ceremony goes down in June and the Vezina Trophy is handed out and voting results revealed, Nashville’s Rinne and Winnipeg’s Hellebuyck are going to finish first and second, respectively. That’s an award based on regular season play, though, which means Hellebuyck will have his chance to exact some revenge for (in all likelihood) missing out on the Vezina with advancing in the post-season. He’s been playing the best hockey of the two netminders, too.
In the first round, Hellebuyck basically pitched three shutouts — he came seconds away from a clean sheet in Game 2, and blanked the Wild in Games 4 and 5 — and heads into the second round having stopped every single one of the past 60 shots he’s faced. He’s also sporting a solid .924 save percentage after his five-game effort and has bounced back brilliantly from his one bad outing.
Rinne, meanwhile, struggled at times against the Avalanche. Despite winning four of six contests, he had two games with a sub-.900 SP and allowed at least two goals in five of the six games. He did, however, finish off the series with a 22-save shutout, and if he starts rolling like he was in the regular season, he might have the Jets shooters flustered and frustrated by the time the series shifts back to Winnipeg.
MARC-ANDRE FLEURY vs. MARTIN JONES
Another goaltending matchup, but one whose billing among the five must-see matchups of the second round is well earned as Vegas’ Fleury and San Jose’s Jones are the post-season’s two top netminders after Round 1. In fact, it’s not even that close.
Let’s start with Fleury, who turned in an outstanding performance for the Golden Knights against the Kings. Over the course of the first round, Los Angeles was able to muster 130 shots on goal, but only three times were Kings shooters able to beat Fleury. Add in two shutouts and after one round — the round of Fleury’s career, honestly — the Golden Knights netminder has a .977 SP and 0.65 goals-against average.
And while those numbers outshine those put together by Jones, it’s only by the slightest margin. Like Fleury, Jones backstopped his team to a series sweep as the Sharks dismantled the Ducks in four games, and the San Jose starter was only slightly less stingy between the pipes. Across four games, Anaheim fired 132 shots on Jones and he turned aside all but four, which gives him a .970 SP and 1.00 GAA to go along with one shutout heading into Round 2. This could be one heck of a goaltending duel.
NIKITA KUCHEROV vs. ANYONE TRYING TO STOP HIM
We don’t know quite yet who will advance to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2 — Game 7 between the Bruins and Maple Leafs goes Wednesday night — but what we do know is whichever team makes it through is going to have their hands full trying to stop Nikita Kucherov.
All season long, Kucherov has been one of the league’s most brilliant offensive players. After what was his breakout, star-making campaign in 2016-17, he went ahead and fired home 39 goals and 100 points as an encore and was the league’s scoring leader for much of the campaign. If not for late charges by Claude Giroux and Connor McDavid, Kucherov would’ve already cleared out some space for the hardware on his mantle.
Missing out on the Art Ross Trophy is all good and well for Kucherov, though, because as Giroux and McDavid get set to book tee times, he and the Lightning are moving on to the second round, and Kucherov played no small part in Tampa Bay advancing. He was a man possessed against the Devils, scoring five goals and 10 points in five games to send New Jersey packing. Better yet, three of his goals were game-winners. Kucherov is going to be a nightmare to slow down, let alone stop.
BRIDGESTONE ARENA vs. BELL MTS PLACE
All right, so it’s not the traditional star-versus-star matchup, but stay with me here. Since Winnipeg’s return to the NHL, the Jets’ fan base has been credited as one of the loudest in the league, almost literally shaking Bell MTS Place in celebration on countless occasions. That noise has only ramped up during the post-season. The Winnipeg Whiteout has been in full effect, too, with upwards of 15,000 people flocking downtown just to catch a glimpse of the Jets’ playoff march on a screen outside the arena, effectively doubling the amount of fans that are “attending” each game at the arena.
But Nashville’s fans are a different brand of rowdy — though it’s a brand that captured the hearts of a large number of onlookers during the 2017 post-season. From the sing-song, college sports-style taunting of the opposition after a goal against to the environment around the arena before, during and after games, the Predators have the game-day experience figured out. And, just to add a bit more fuel to the fan-versus-fan fire, Jets fans were chanting “We Want Nashville” during Winnipeg’s rout of the Minnesota Wild to close out the first round. Something tells me Predators faithful will have a response once the series gets underway.
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